Murdoch University hounds academic who blew whistle on falling standards

9 December 2019
A landmark trial about a whistle-blower who raised concerns about the integrity of Murdoch University’s admission standards for international students will return to the Federal Court on Wednesday ahead after mediation between Associate Professor Gerd Schroeder-Turk and the University failed.

Associate Professor Schroeder-Turk, who is the academic staff elected representative on the University Senate, appeared on ABC’s Four Corners in May and blew the whistle on poor governance and ethical concerns about Murdoch University’s lucrative international student recruitment program. The program reported that the University was accepting students who were below the University’s English standards, effectively exploiting them in pursuit of revenue and thereby jeopardising academic integrity.

In response to Associate Professor Schroeder-Turk blowing the whistle, Murdoch University sought to remove him from his elected position on the University Senate. Whilst Associate Professor Schroeder-Turk’s legal claim has so far prevented Murdoch University throwing him off the University Senate, they are now suing him personally.

Josh Bornstein, Principal Lawyer at Maurice Blackburn said:

“Retribution was swift. Murdoch University punished Schroeder-Turk seeking his immediate expulsion from the University Senate. When that was prevented by legal action, the University sued my client, seeking millions of dollars in damages.”

Bornstein criticised the University’s decision to sue Schroeder-Turk.

“This is an unprecedented attack on a whistle-blower in this country. The University clearly intends to try and frighten my client and any other staff member wanting to speak up about maladministration,” he said.

The University’s treatment of Schroeder-Turk has prompted an outpouring of support for him.

Over 31,000 people have signed a petition supporting Associate Professor Schroeder-Turk.

Schroeder-Turk has also received expressions of support from academics around the world. He is also being supported by the academics union, the NTEU. WA Division Secretary Jonathan Hallett said: “Regrettably, Murdoch University is a University with a chequered past history of poor governance. In 2016, the WA Corruption and Crime Commission found the University’s former Vice Chancellor had engaged in serious misconduct. “

Hallett added:

“Murdoch University has an extraordinary hypersensitivity to external scrutiny, transparency and any criticism. In recent years, it has spent enormous sums in seeking to use the legal system to suppress scrutiny, transparency and criticism including:

In November 2018 Murdoch University sought an urgent Supreme Court injunction seeking to stop the publication of an article in the NTEU journal titled 'Trouble at Murdoch’. The article referred to “a substantial influx of international students, many with poor English skills, and concerns about both the failure rate and plagiarism.” The University’s bid to stymie debate and criticism failed with Chief Justice Quinlan dismissing the University’s case as weak and highlighting the public interest in free expression. His Honour also noted that the University’s functions include “promoting critical and free enquiry…and public debate”.

Maurice Blackburn Principal Josh Bornstein says that this is a critical case under the Fair Work Act which will determine whether its provisions provide protection against retribution levelled at whistle-blowers within the workplace.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) National President Dr Alison Barnes said today:

“This is an unprecedented attack on academic governance and academic freedom.”

“The Associate Professor is the academic staff member elected by his peers. This attempt to silence the academic voice sends a chill through the entire higher education system, because academics must be involved in university governance at the highest levels.”

“The right of staff to speak freely about their teaching and research and question higher education policy and administration is fundamental to any university. It is the antithesis of academic freedom for a university to sue one of its staff for speaking out,” Dr Barnes said.

“The ongoing aggressive and legalistic approach of the University to its staff and their representatives will only exacerbate poor morale and staff retention. We’re aware that the University’s research profile is already being adversely affected, with Professor Robert Cribb resigning over these matters.”

“We think the public’s support of the Associate Professor should make Murdoch question its decisions. NTEU members from across the country have stood in solidarity with Gerd with a generous outpouring of support. We proudly recognise him as a member.”

Media inquiries: Paddy Murphy at Maurice Blackburn on (03) 8102 2003 / 0490 297 391 or via pmurphy@mauriceblackburn.com.au

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